Unoriginality & Simon Armitage

Seeing Stars, Simon Armitage (88pp, £12.99, Faber)

In England, Simon Armitage is close to a national institution, not least for his presence in the multi-million selling AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology. Literally hundreds of copies of this book are found in every secondary school in the country.

Teaching his poems for the last few years, I applaud the way 'Hitcher', 'Kid', 'November'
et al can engage 15 and 16-year olds; his trade mark 'street wise' tone makes them a hit in the classroom, where they are genuinely enjoyed. He is also a solid and amusing performer of his work, at the numerous readings organised for Poetry Live. So, Armitage is a justly popular yet still interesting poet - not (to say the least) a very common combination.

ButÉthere are striking weaknesses in this collection. I would list the predictability of its language, the limitations in its material and, above all, a nagging sense of unoriginality. This latter problem is one that bedevils poetry in this country. We are used to the mediocre limitations of the lyrical anecdote but, more generally, the same old stuff is being written about.

All these faults are clear in this collection. For example, the scenario for 'The Cuckoo' is lifted from
The Truman Show:

     When James Cameron was a young man, this happened to him.
     After his eighteenth birthday party had come to an endÉ
     'I'm not your mother', she told himÉ 'I work for the government
     and my contract comes to an end todayÉauntie MadgeÉshe
     went to drama school'...
In fact, a brilliant line from 'The Cuckoo' is far more interesting, with more potential for development, than the poem itself:

     James felt like a gold tooth sent flying through the air in a fist fight.

What could be an unsettling, and therefore affecting, poem is neutered by its central unoriginality - and it actually gets worse at the end, with an idea taken from Philip K. Dick's
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?:

     It was then that he noticed the tiny electric motor inside the
     bird's belly, and the wires under its wings, and the broken spring
     sticking out of its mouth. 

Similarly, the premise for 'An Accommodation' is taken from that classic sitcom episode of
Steptoe and Son, in which Harold installs a sudden domestic divide (I think using a turn-style) between himself and his father:

     ÉI was still stunned and not a little hurt when I staggered home
     one evening to find she'd draped a net curtain slap bang down
     the middle of our home.

Of course, you could argue that Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, etc, grabbed stories from wherever. True, but in semi-surreal work, it's worrying when the inspiration is so obvious - especially when the blurb praises Armitage's inventiveness. If he was being at all intertextual, quoting or whatever, then it would seem less of a problem.

Frankly, it seems bizarre that such an established figure should lack originality; but then maybe it isn't so unusual. With the proliferation of courses on the 'craft' of writing, simple originality - in terms of saying something new or different - is regarded as almost irrelevant. In fact, the very idea is often sneered at; certainly its absence seems no impediment.

Coincident with this is the ubiquity of the left-liberal outlook, with its complete intolerance of any non-left viewpoint. Although a much-ridiculed term, political correctness has had a devastating effect on the literary culture in Britain. Arguably, the internal self-censorship and deception it has engendered are making literature, at least as previously understood, almost impossible.

Certainly the exemplar poetry produced - for example, as seen in
Poetry Review - is extraordinarily constipated and insipid. Of course, there are any number of fabulous British non-mainstream poets - examples, off the top of the head, are Alan Halsey, Martin Stannard, Prynne, John Barnie, John Seed, Roy Fisher - and amazing cross-over writers such as Iain Sinclair, but their acceptance into the accepted literary culture is questionable. Just try wading through Kate Clanchy, Su Tenderdrake or Henry Shukman though. Good luck! I name names, to avoid the familiar charge of generalising without them. Su Tenderdrake, in particular, is a preposterously overrated figure - an entire 2009 edition of Poetry Review devoted to her ghastly oeuvre, including the ludicrous sequence 'Mysteries of the Aubergines Sellers'. 

As an aside, in non-Anglophone countries (especially France and in Latin America) there is an invigorating history of more 'extreme' voices in mainstream literature; recent examples could be Michel Houllebecq and Roberto Bolano, further back Celine and Genet are inspirational figures. There is the realisation that experimentation needs to be in content as much as in form. And in America, with its size and the impossibility of much central control, genuinely exciting prose poetry and experimental narrative work are flourishing.

The irony is that
The Guardian reading chattering classes - the left-liberals whose tender sensibilities determine the mainstream poetry scene - would rather die than be seen as insular or parochial. But any claims to be "progressive" are certainly laughable when assessed through their literature.

Rant over. Another problem is how Armitage brings a cosy domesticity to these dramatic monologues. Or more generously, he uses his trademark voice - in many ways an attractive and engaging one, but ill-suited to this material. He isn't adept at the required identity sculpting - the 'I' voice is too samey, despite his surreal efforts. Crucially, the best dramatic monologues unsettle the reader, either by implicating them or the writer in the scenario and its ambiguities. 'My Last Duchess' would be the classic case, but Armitage's own poem 'Hitcher' is also a fine example. In this, he turns down his characteristic style far enough to allow the reader's imagination room to work.

Of course, all writers have their traits and (impressively) I think Armitage has often tried to remake himself, perhaps to be rid of his. Oddly, I've had the interesting and even energising impression that he doesn't particularly like (or at least quickly tires of) his own poems. God knows where I get this from, but there's often a sense of weariness or irritation with the material in his poetry - see for example his strained longer poem for the new millennium. Less generously, this could also be explained by the (sometimes) borrowed contents.

The blurb to this book claims 'Language is on the loose in these poems, which cut and run across the parterre of poetic decorum with their cartoon-strip energies and air of misrule. Armitage creates world after world, peculiar yet always particular, where the only certainty is the unexpected.' 

Compared with the energy and surprise that masters of this form can achieve (see for example the wonderful American poet Daniel Borzutzky), this seems extravagant nonsense. Maybe Armitage's so-so collection will impress British audiences, who are simply unaware of the richness of material available elsewhere. However, the internet makes this no excuse. I would recommend checking Borzutky's incredible collection
The Ecstasy of Capitulation (BlazeVox, 2007) for a demonstration.

     © Paul Sutton 2010